LAS VEGAS — Before Monday, my last memory of seeing 7’2″ Chinese center Zhou Qi going up against NBA talent was not a good one for the young man with NBA aspirations. He was part of the Chinese national team that played two exhibitions against Team USA before the Rio Olympics, and Zhou looked overwhelmed in the first meeting, shooting 1-of-6 shooting for two points. He looked more comfortable and aggressive in the second meeting and led China with 13 points, plus intimidated a couple USA drivers into the paint, but he didn’t seem NBA ready yet.
He looks much closer now. Just ask Suns’ No. 3 pick Josh Jackson.
In Las Vegas playing for the Rockets’ Summer League team, Zhou looks at home on the court — he belongs. He is tall, long (7’7″ wingspan), and is surprisingly mobile. In the past couple of years, it seems Zhou’s game has matured. (To be fair, part of it also is judging anyone against that Team USA squad — with 12 of the top 15-20 players on the planet — was unfair.)
He’s still a work in progress with a long way to go, but the Rockets like what they have seen this summer in terms of his potential as a shot-blocking big in the NBA.
“You look at the game… he had 3 points in 23 minutes, but he was a +23, which means he was having a positive impact on the game,” Rockets Summer League coach Roy Rogers said Monday after a Rockets win. “Sometimes when you’re watching him you don’t realize all the little plays he makes while he is on the court, whether it be contesting a shot, getting a rebound, in the right position defensively. He’s progressed really well in this first week of Summer League, we just have to keep him going in the right direction.”
While defensively he has looked better, Zhou is shooting just 32 percent in Las Vegas. He has knocked down a couple of threes but mostly struggled from deep (0-7 the last two games). The Rockets want him to take those shots, they don’t want him taking midrange jumpers, they like he is willing to shoot the long ball. One good development on Monday was when a defender closed out on him at the arc he put the ball on the floor and drove to the basket.
“I don’t even consider it him struggling with his shot because he’s had great looks,” Rogers said.
Zhou is learning the NBA game. He has struggled some deal with bigs who can step out on the perimeter — his instincts are to protect the rim, so against Denver in his first Summer League game he was late to recover on Juan Hernangomez, letting him get open looks on jumpers.
Zhou also needs to get stronger to deal with some of the more physical big men in the NBA.
“I think the muscle part is overrated, because in our league now we want to show off our speed and athleticism, so there’s no need in him becoming a bulky guy… (mobility) is one of his biggest strengths right now,” Rogers said. “I think our training staff, strength coach, will get him stronger, but it’s not a big focus of ours, to necessarily get him bigger.”
For NBA teams, Summer League is about discovering and starting to unlock potential — and Zhou has that. He’s a project, one who likely spends part of next season in the G-League getting run he could not on a contending Rockets’ team, but you can see why Rockets GM Daryl Morey signed him. It’s not hard to see where Zhou could fit in the NBA game as a shot-blocking big who can knock down the occasional three. He has a spot in the NBA if he continues to develop.
“He’s a special kid,” Rogers said. “You coach him, you get on him, you tell him what to do and he goes back out and does it as hard as he can. So he’s been a pleasure to be around. He gets along great with this teammates. I’ve been fortunate to get to coach him.”